The science of brainwashing

20 November 2013

Interview with

Dr Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.

EyesHannah -   What about using psychology findings to control the thoughts of the opposition?  The word "brainwashing" was coined over 70 years ago.  During the Korean war, American soldiers in Chinese prisoner of war camps came home communists, denouncing the American way of life - an apparent reversal of their beliefs.  To find out about the science of "brainwashing", I caught up with Dr. Kathleen Taylor from Oxford University.

Kathleen -   The whole idea of brainwashing is really contested.  This is not some kind of magical weird process.  It's just this basic application of psychology and neuroscience only taken to very extremes.  Because it's very coercive, you don't get people doing brainwashing research, at least not in reputable institutions.  So, there is no field of brainwashing research, that's the first point. 

However, neuroscience is making some progress in understanding the kinds of changes that might take place in the brain when somebody is put in that kind of very stressful situation.  So for example, the US military has done research looking at the effects of stress on the brain and looking at stress hormones and how they affect particularly pre-frontal areas because I think the essence of a quote, unquote brainwashing situation is when somebody is very, very highly stressed.  They're put under an awful lot of pressure and that pressure might be emotional abuse, it might be lack of sleep, it might be forced to do repetitive behaviours, it might be isolation from all the things that they know so they're kind of disoriented, and it might be that their inputs are controlled so that their entire reality is under somebody else's control.  So, all of that is going to change the brain.  Of course it is, everything changes the brain, but those allow the "brainwasher" to have much more control over what's actually going into the brain and obviously, what's going into the brain is to a certain extent, determining what is being thought by the brain and what is coming out in the terms of actions and behaviours. 

So, you see for example that in cults, the once that exert the most bizarre control, the ones that really seem to be able to make people do very extreme things are the ones that are very isolated and having a lot more control of the person's situation whereas cults like the Moonies, that people operate in society are much less extreme.

Hannah -   What kind of implications are there for "brainwashing" in the world of politics?

Kathleen -   I mean, there are loads, absolute loads.  So for example, it is possible that as people develop more understanding of how beliefs changes happens in the brain that they want to use that in situations where you have people with beliefs that don't match yours and that raises huge political and ethical questions.  So for example, you have the simple questions of who decides whose beliefs are okay and whose beliefs aren't.  And then you have the whole ethical thing about whether changing somebody's belief is actually like treating them for a mental illness or whether it's like doing something else.  I mean, there are really big questions about this.  So, the whole idea of beliefs in politics and whether they can be changed and specifically, whether they can be changed artificially - I mean, people are really interested in working out how beliefs are based on how they're encoded in the brain.  That's the first step to wanting to be able to change them and I mean, that's just one of the big issues that neuroscience is going to raise increasingly in the next years and decades.  It's one of the biggest.

Hannah -   And I'm afraid that's all we have time for this month.  Thanks to Fran Ashcroft, David Jett, Rod Flowers, Kathleen Taylor, Mark Lyndhurst, Ty Carter, Barrack Obama, and Amy Milton. 

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